U.K. Nonprofit Seeks Tech Ideas To Help Teens

Tech for Good challenge will invest $758,000 in projects that use "disruptive digital technology" to create new opportunities for at-risk young adults in the U.K.
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A high-profile nonprofit organization that supports Britain's homeless, The Big Issue, says it's time technology started showing leadership around the social problems unemployed young people face.

To that end, the charity's investment arm, Big Issue Invest has launched the Tech for Good challenge, a new drive aimed at investing up to $758,000 (£500,000) in U.K. startups that, in its words, are "brilliant and sustainable enterprises using innovative and disruptive digital technology to support and create opportunities for young people to transform their lives."

For Nigel Kershaw, CEO of Big Issue Invest, which has invested $30 million (£20) million in 160 enterprises since 2005, the challenge is about "[creating] an environment that makes it easier for young people to change their lives." The initiative's main target beneficiaries are people between the ages of 16 and 25.

The context is the growing issue of young British people becoming NEETs (not in education, employment or training) due to the sluggish economy. At the end of 2011, 197,600 (9.9%) of British 16- to 18-year-olds were NEETs; European Union figures suggest that for Europe as a whole the total may be as high as 14 million.

[ Want to learn why online education may not be the best way to train young adults? Learn more: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion? ]

The Tech for Good challenge plan, says the charity, is to find and nurture budding social enterprises that have cool ideas about using technology to create opportunities for young people in England. It's looking to help "ventures that engage young people in new, more meaningful and relevant ways and equip them with the confidence, skills and motivation to address the social challenges that they and future generations face."

To do that, it also wants to go beyond business as usual. "We want to work with great organizations that are already reaching young people, helping to scale up participation, reach new audiences or create new products -- not invest in the everyday running of current practices," it said.

So it won't put any money into startups that want to add technological or digital services to existing programs; rather, it is inviting bids from ventures that "make imaginative use of technology to rethink how we can support young people to transform their lives and communities." Thus, it won't pursue contact with teams that don't want to do more than, say, equip a school with PCs, buy software licenses or install Wi-Fi for a community, as it deems these ideas too much like "the everyday running of current practices."

By that same token, it also doesn't want to hear about funding website improvements or development where no new functional or service delivery innovations are created "unless the venture can demonstrate how this will deliver an innovative solution."

Anyone who feels their idea passes these quite stiff tests can apply online until the April 15 deadline, with final judging set for mid-June. (You do not have to be a U.K. citizen to apply, but your idea must benefit young people within England.)

The Big Issue is partnering on the challenge with Nominet Trust, which since 2008 has been investing in and supporting initiatives committed to using digital technology to create social and economic value. The challenge is also underwritten by cloud giant, outsourcer Mitie, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, private equity house LDC and Unity Trust Bank. Another stakeholder is Britain's Big Lottery, which routes money from the country's national lottery to community groups and projects that improve health, education and the environment.

All these organizations have committed to provide not just cash investment but mentoring services to startups identified as worth backing. To decide which teams should receive the help, 20 of the best applicants will be chosen in what the partners call a Caterpillars Cocoon pitching process (the joke here being that it will be deliberately less high pressure and confrontational than hard-nosed U.K. TV show Dragons' Den, where business owners often brutally confront wannabe entrepreneurs). Ten winners will be selected from the Cocoon process to reach the next stage, where a maximum of $76,000 (£50,000) worth of seed funding per winner, plus the mentoring help, will be allotted.

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